In the Senate Judiciary Hearing held after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s report that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her became public, Kavanaugh famously declared: “Yes, we drank beer. I liked beer. Still like beer. We drank beer.” The refrain that Kavanaugh beat about liking beer in the hearing quickly became the stuff of hashtags, memes, and yet another bit of political stunt casting on Saturday Night Live.
My initial reaction, though, was a bit less Twitter-ready. I heard in Kavanaugh’s love for beer an unintentional echo of James Boswell who, in 1780, admitted in the London Magazine: “I love drinking.”
As I read essays that contextualized Kavanaugh’s testimony in terms of the physical experience of blackouts, the gendered double standards we apply to drug use as well as public behavior, and the networks of homosocial power that justify and encourage the sexual assault and humiliation of young women, I became increasingly convinced that the connection to Boswell was not merely the work of free association. Rather, that connection showed that there is a through-line running from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century when it comes to the relationships that exist between drug use and power.
In tracing what he calls the “pre-history” of addiction, Roy Porter includes Boswell as an example of the competitive, jovial social networks that grew out of drinking circles in the eighteenth century. William Hogarth’s famous twinned engravings, Gin Lane and Beer Street (1751), illustrate how the borders of that drinking culture were often defined against a backdrop of so-called problem drinkers from otherwise marginalized groups.
With the different drinking coteries of Gin Lane or Beer Street and Boswell’s social circle in mind, I started to think that Kavanaugh’s repeated assertions that he loves beer—a potentially incriminating truth he repeated throughout his testimony—were motivated not only by the immediate need to defend himself against Ford’s accusations but also by a broader desire to validate and uphold the channels of masculine power that continue to be lubricated by alcohol today.
Despite a number of developments over the last 150 years (from the rise of 12-step programs to the use of brain-imaging technology that promises to reveal addiction’s physical cause) alcoholism continues to be understood in much the same ways as Hogarth depicted it in Gin Lane and Beer Street.
Today, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and The International Classification of Diseases, 10th revision (ICD) both describe substance-use disorders as “impairments” characterized by “marked distress” (DSM-5) or the “neglect of other activities […] or misuse of time” (ICD). As Lennard Davis writes of a similar clause in the DSM definition of “obsession,” “marked distress” is necessarily determined by culture:
The same behaviors in different cultures might produce different results. In other words, it takes a community, a culture, a family to make an obsessive. If your behavior […] is seen as an oddity, you will be distressed that you do it.
Davis’s work demonstrates that the distinction between pathological and productive obsession often depends on one’s ability to make a living indulging it. Of course, the fact that Davis’s examination focuses almost entirely on “obsession”—and not the related issue of addiction—speaks to the uniquely tenuous position of addicts who have been subject not only to medical but also to legal and judicial oversight since the nineteenth century. When drinking causes distress for a member of a privileged group (like, say, Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge), the disease model offers them moral vindication and medical treatment; when drug use causes distress among marginalized people, it is treated as a moral failing with social costs that justify intervention by police.
Collectively, the examples of Boswell, Hogarth, and Kavanaugh reveal that “marked distress” is an affect explicitly dictated by those who are granted the privilege to “mark” it (whether by depicting it in a print, publishing it in the London Magazine, or writing about it in legal decisions). Like Boswell and Hogarth, Kavanaugh has at times used his power to create a distinction between the productive drinking that those who have privilege can do and the “unproductive” drug use that occurs among those who lack privilege. Writing in his dissent in the National Federation of Federal Employees v. Vilsack case, for example, Kavanaugh affirmed the validity of a blanket drug testing policy for employees who worked with “at-risk” students by acknowledging that there was “a strong and indeed compelling interest in maintaining a drug-free workforce at these specialized residential schools for at-risk youth.” Similarly, in a speech he gave last fall at an event honoring William Rehnquist, Kavanaugh praised Rehnquist’s efforts to walk back expansions of the Fourth Amendment that had occurred in the 1960s and the 1970s. Rehnquist’s “rebalancing” of law enforcement’s rights over those of citizens’ privacy was important, Kavanaugh said, “especially in cases involving violent crime and drugs.”
Restoration poet John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, was no stranger to the circuits that privilege, power, drink, and sexual violence traversed. The speaker of Rochester’s “The Disabled Debauchee” tells his tales of past debauchery to a young audience in part to instruct them to follow his lead: “any youth (worth being drunk)” would “please the ghost of [his] departed Vice / If at [his] counsel he repent and drink.” Unlike Kavanaugh, though, Rochester’s speaker emphasizes the social and economic costs of this behavior:
I’ll tell of whores attacked (their lords at home),
Bawds’ quarters beaten up and fortress won,
Windows demolished, watches overcome,
And handsome ills by my contrivance done.
The bite of Rochester’s satire inheres in his suggestion that the Debauchee’s persuasive power does not emerge despite the distress caused by his actions but because of them. The Debauchee’s tales inspire his young listeners to do “mischief” of their own.
The Debauchee’s call to action is remarkably similar to that of another Kavanaugh speech—one he made to the Yale Law School Federalist Society in 2014. During the hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal mentioned this speech and a bit that Kavanaugh included in it about a trip he once took with his Yale Law classmates to Fenway Park. As Kavanaugh boasted in the speech, that trip had ended with Kavanaugh and his friends “stumbling” out of the bus they’d chartered and later attempting to “piece things back together.” Blumenthal wondered if this anecdote was evidence that Kavanaugh was lying when he claimed in the hearing that he’d never blacked out after drinking. Kavanaugh defended himself by recasting the night in question as an evening of “camaraderie” and “friendship” with his classmates in which any drinking was incidental.
The actual speech, however, presents drinking as an essential part of the Yale Law experience. Singling out one friend who spent his time on the bus studying for an exam, Kavanaugh joked that the “people doing the group chugs” did better on the exam than the prim student. The antics of the boozing revelers, Kavanaugh suggested, were enabled in part by a pledge of silence: “Fortunately for all of us, we had a motto, what happens on the bus stays on the bus.” Kavanaugh represents drinking as bonding in order to create common ground between his listeners and the Federalist Society of Kavanaugh’s time at Yale Law. Kavanaugh offers a slight reworking of the slogan to cement that connection and to perpetuate alcohol’s role in creating it: “Tonight,” he told his listeners, “you can modify that to what happens at the Fed Soc after-party stays at the Fed Soc after-party.”
Kavanaugh likes this saying. He modified it again when he declared in a 2015 speech: “What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep.” In the versions of events he presented in his speeches, where what happened only resulted in a broken table or two, the saying seems to be a harmless—if hokey—reference to the popular slogan from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. In light of the accusations from Dr. Ford and Deborah Ramirez (and at least one police report), however, the saying starts to sound like a demand, like a cover-up.
The potential liability these stories bring to Kavanaugh and his friends raises the question: why talk about any of it at all? Shouldn’t what happened on the bus or at Georgetown Prep have stayed on the bus or at Georgetown Prep? No doubt, the privilege that Kavanaugh has long held simply means that he has never feared facing legal repercussions. Yet by telling the stories in the first place, Kavanaugh also conveniently emphasizes the “camaraderie” and erases any markings of distress that attend privileged drinking culture. In turn, the selectively-enforced code of silence perpetuates that culture as well as the power of men who, like Kavanaugh, love their drink.
As Rochester tells it, perpetuating cultures of drinking by controlling their narratives becomes a form of power in and of itself. The Debauchee concludes the poem by finding new purpose in his ability to inspire other men to “mischief:”
Thus, statesmanlike, I’ll saucily impose
And safe from action valiantly advise,
Sheltered in impotence urge you to blows,
And being good for nothing else, be wise.
The Debauchee’s self-identification as “statesmanlike,” along with the cutting concluding line, reveal the hypocrisy that enables this sort of claim to power, but the poem does nothing to check the Debauchee’s misplaced ambition. This is part of its satirical point.
While the relationship between the work of the state and debauchery remains metaphorical within the logic of Rochester’s poem, Kavanaugh is not merely “statesmanlike.” He is a statesman who now has a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the nation. His ability to control the flow of information about what happened at Georgetown Prep and at Yale proved to be key in cementing his power. The report drawn from the FBI investigation remains classified and carefully protected. Senate Democrats who have seen it say it was perfunctory, limited in scope, and far from exculpatory.
In announcing her intention to cast what was, effectively, the deciding vote for Kavanaugh, Senator Susan Collins praised Kavanaugh as “an exemplary public servant, judge, teacher, coach, husband, and father.” The defense echoed Kavanaugh’s own strategy of deflecting questions about his drinking by cataloging his academic and athletic accomplishments. Kavanaugh’s recourse to reciting bullet points from his CV, like his refrain of liking beer, was the subject of much ridicule. But in mocking Kavanaugh, we may have missed something important. Because we have for so long associated “problem” drinking with personal and professional “distress,” evidence of personal and professional success can be presented convincingly as evidence of a healthy relationship with alcohol. Any seemingly negative consequences of those relationships (or those sets of assumptions) can be reframed and dismissed as mere “mischief.”
Corey Goergen is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research looks to the literature of the long eighteenth century as a productive site for bringing disability studies and addiction studies together. His work has been published, among other places, in the edited volume Disabling Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).